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The Bug Goes Butch: Why VW's Appeal to Men is a Dangerous Bet

Volkswagen of America President and CEO Jonathan Browning, in introducing the 2012 Beetle in New York, called it "an updated classic, and unmistakably a Beetle." Indeed it is, but one of the cutest cars in the world just got a bit more, well, butch. That would undoubtedly be a shrewd move if we were talking about the Dodge Ram pickup, but the VW Beetle has long appealed disproportionately to women.

More than 60 percent of the Beetle's buyers last year were women, says a TrueCar survey. Isn't that what the bud vase was all about? But when the curtain parted at the Beetle introduction, it revealed a more macho car -- one that's lower, longer and wider, with bigger wheels and a blunter, squared-off nose. The changes are relatively subtle -- there's a lot of the New Beetle's DNA still in evidence -- but no one's going to be able to overlook the testosterone injection. The Beetle (in base, turbo and TDI diesel versions) goes on sale in September.

Emotional... and masculine
Klaus Bischoff, director of Volkswagen Design, described the car as "more dynamic, sportier and more masculine." Luca DeMeo, director of marketing for the VW Group, put it somewhat differently, describing the new design as an effort to "reconnect to the emotional appeal of the original car." Of course, the original car was a complete wimp -- and VW's brilliant 1960s advertising turned that inescapable fact into a virtue.

Here's a likely motivator for VW: According to the Los Angeles Times, women account for only 36 percent of new car registrations. That makes appealing to men kind of essential, but a redesign isn't going to turn this essentially cuddly car into BMW's "ultimate driving machine" (though the 200-horsepower turbo model is sort of aiming for that territory).

I asked Ben Freidson, manager of brand strategy about the risk of alienating women buyers, and he said, "We're not trying to move away from women buyers, but we want to give the car wider appeal." In other words, women and men, which is necessary if VW is to reach its ambitious growth targets. But if the strategy backfires both sexes could look elsewhere.

What about the gas mileage?
The Beetle has always sold on its excellent fuel economy, not usually a core concern for Road & Track subscribers (also overwhelmingly male). So I found it telling that in all the talk about the more aggressive, there was no mention of the base car's EPA numbers (very good at 31 on the highway, 22 in town).

None of the cars women buy in great numbers project a tough-guy image. According to TrueCar's survey, they include the Honda CR-V, Toyota Yaris, Subaru Forester and VW's own Eos. An Auto Pacific survey said that 65 percent of all Beetle convertible buyers are female. Women are clearly going for small and friendly here, as well as good fuel economy.

Men buy big
Their men, well, they like big cars and performance vehicles. AutoPacific revealed that men buy 93 percent of all trucks. Although women often end up as the pilots of GMC Sierras, it's men buying 87.4 percent of them. The two-seat Corvette is the antithesis of a mom's taxi, and 86.7 percent of them are bought by men. (Almost all Ferraris are bought by men, too.)

VW's Keith Price says the New Beetle was never intended to be a women's car. "It happened more organically," he said. "But VW does absolutely not consider it 'a woman's car.'" OK, now that the Beetle is toughened up, it's a car for all of us. Let's see if that works. Here's a look on video:

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Photo: Jim Motavalli